Note: this is mainly based on a People’s Daily article of December last year. It may currently not be the season for this kind of articles in the Chinese press.
The Japanese ministry of agriculture, forestry and fisheries prepared an application to UNESCO in 2011, to have the international body recognize Japanese cuisine or food (washoku in Japanese, heshi/和食) as part of the world’s intangible cultural heritage. By April this year, the only other cuisines listed as cultural heritage by UNESCO reportedly were French, Mexican, Turkish, Mediterranean and most recently, Korean imperial food. According to the Japan Times, UNESCO will issue its final judgment in November 2013.
Cheng Lin (成琳), a regular or unregular contributor to People’s Daily, considered Japan’s approach a move to expand the country’s soft power (ruan shili/软实力):
A country’s food culture is a vital component of a country’s [overall] culture, from which you can find out about its characteristics and ways of thought. “washoku” is a miniature of how Japanese people do things, and of Japanese culture. “washoku” pays great attention to the freshness of ingredients, the senses of seasons, and original flavors, and embodies Japanese adherence to a natural attitude. Japanese cuisine is also mindful about simplicity in the use of eating utensils and the environment where they eat, displaying simple and elegant, aesthetic consciousness. The greatest characteristic of “washoku” is about a combination of adaptibility and innovation, which speaks of compatibility [or of inclusiveness] and of creativity.
Cheng Lin emphasizes how Western and – historically – many foods which weren’t originally Japanese were incorporated into Japanese cuisine, enriching and perfecting (进一步丰富完善) it.
While the three types of Japanese drama – apparently the Noh play, the Joruri or puppet play, and the Kabuki play (能乐, 净琉璃文乐木偶戏, and 歌舞伎) – were too abstract for foreigners, and even younger Japanese people to appreciate them, washoku came with cultural characteristics that were succinct and clear, something that had already turned into part of Japan’s soft power.
According to statistics, the numbers of Japanese restaurants have continuously grown, all over the world. During the past ten years, their number in America increased by 250 percent, and by 300 percent in Britain, during the past five years. The owners of these restaurants may not necessarily be Japanese people, but those who go there show their endorsement of Japanese food.
The remaining paragraph of the article addresses other factors that appeared to make Japanese culture “cool”, with pop music and “Hello Kitty” among them. Other items, too, but I guess I’ve never noticed them, and therefore don’t know how to translate them.
Cheng Li’s conclusion may or may not be correct, but is certainly conventional Chinese-Communist-Party wisdom about “building soft power” – from that perspective anyway, Japan’s application to UNESCO isn’t only about image, but about enhancing national cohesion (增强民族凝聚力), too.